HE “HOBBLED” RIGHT PAST ME
Every time I mentioned it to anyone, the reaction was usually the same. With eyes registering a look of sheer surprise, the verbal reaction was soon to follow: “You’re going to do what?” It was simply inconceivable to my friends, family, and co-workers that I was going to participate in a triathlon. Not as a water-boy, or timekeeper, or worker at the registration table, but as a tri-athlete participant! But it was official. I had paid my money and sent in my registration for the 2011 Santa Rosa Island Triathlon to be held at Pensacola Beach, Florida.
Anyone who knew me had the right to be shocked by the news of my participation. As a long-time church musician and a seminary professor, “athletic” was obviously not a prominent adjective in my bio. So my participation in a triathlon elicited a few raised eyebrows. Even I was a little surprised by the idea.
Bethany, my oldest daughter and an occupational therapist, was the reason I was going to participate. I jokingly accused her of “tricking” me into registering. Just a few months earlier I had sprained my ankle and had to curtail my running. She had insisted that I get into swimming at the gym, since “it would not hurt my ankle one bit.” I took her advice and gave swimming a try. A few weeks later she decided that it would be a great idea for me to register for the triathlon which would be near her home. Since I had already taken up swimming and running, how hard could it possibly be to just add biking to the mix? She would even loan me a bike, so I could get ready for that part of the race. And she would do it with me. The offer was hard to resist. In an unguarded moment, I said yes.
In the following weeks, cross-training in swimming, running, and biking helped me get ready for the big race. Finally, October 1 arrived and at 5:30 AM I found myself standing in a long line of competitors who had assembled in order to get marked up with a Sharpie pen. Seems all my body parts would have to be tagged, maybe to make it easier to identify in the event that they were to get separated! I have to admit, it added a grisly dimension to the surreal atmosphere that dark, chilly, windy morning on the beach.
It wasn’t long before the sun came up and the race began. I was in the second wave of competitors for the swimming leg of the event, an ocean swim of 600 meters. As I stood on the beach, bare-chested and waiting for the horn to blow, I was cold and nervous. Getting into the warm gulf water would be somewhat of a relief. But once the swim began, I became a bit panicky. I had only trained in a pool. This was open water, choppy from the wind, which became even more churned up by the hundred or so swimmers thrashing around in an attempt to get ahead. The fact that jelly-fish had joined the fun was disconcerting. The swimming form I had worked so hard on in my pool training went out the window. No way was I going to put my head under the water! I needed to see the buoys marking the course as well as avoid fellow swimmers, and besides, I had no desire to see what was under the surface. My thought: Let’s just get through this swim leg…
Transitioning to the bike wasn’t too hard, and I was comforted by the fact that there were no jelly-fish on the road. But there were bikers, and lots of them. I quickly discovered that I had not trained enough for this sizeable part of the triathlon. Eighteen miles (nine out and nine back) wouldn’t have been so bad if the course had just been flat. But, those headwinds! For a good portion of the trek out, it felt like an uphill climb. I had only been on the open road three times with my bike, having done most of the training on a stationary bike at the gym. I had underestimated what this leg would take. Not surprisingly, I heard “on your left” an awful lot, as racer after racer passed me by. I didn’t stop, but only because my pride wouldn’t allow me to be the only person on the road walking his bike. The trek back in went more smoothly since the winds weren’t in my face. Next up: the transition to the 5K run.
Being a fairly good runner, I had imagined the running leg to be pretty much a non-issue. But I had not factored in what would be necessary for the “bricks” (or transitions from biking to running). Since the disciplines of biking and running use different muscle groups, running after a good long bike ride can cause your legs to feel sluggish, or like jello. Once I had begun the run portion of the race, I understood why all the talk about transitions. My legs felt like stubs and only a sheer force of will made them move. It was a strange sensation since I had always enjoyed running. At that moment, it felt like I was poking along and could do nothing to improve the situation. I was thankful that the run leg was only 3.1 miles, so I knew it couldn’t last forever. In my mind, I knew I just had to keep moving, even if ever so slowly.
Toward the end of the run, with less than a mile left to go, an older gentleman came up from behind and we ran together for a brief moment. We had a halting conversation along the way which went something like this: Bill (not his real name) began: “Beautiful day out here today.” “Yes,” I replied, I’m enjoying it except that my right leg is kinda hurting and I’m having to hobble along.” “I’ve been hobbling all the way,” said Bill as he pulled ahead of me. He didn’t really look like he was hobbling that much. But as he got up in front of me a few yards, I was able to see the Sharpie markings they had put on the back of our legs. It was a number, indicating our age. (Yes, we had that “scarlet letter” posted on the back of our calves for all the world to see.) As I looked at the number on the back of Bill’s legs I was absolutely shocked! This man who had “hobbled” right past me had the number “79” written there! Bill was a nearly 80 year-old man who was about to finish this triathlon, and was making better time than me, someone 25 years his junior!
I was truly inspired! After the race was over, I couldn’t help but reflect on my brief encounter with 79-year-old “Bill” and his ageless ability to keep going through all the rigors of two hours of a triathlon event. Even though he had “hobbled all the way,” as he put it, he had kept at it until he crossed that finish line, about ten seconds ahead of me. The words of that old hymn came to mind:
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come.
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
Yes, I learned a lot through this triathlon. I learned that training is indispensable—even if it doesn’t exactly simulate the real race conditions; that transitions can be tough and need to be practiced; and that physical challenges can cause us to “hobble” some of the time. From Bill, a 79-year-old man who hobbled right past me in the last few moments of the race, I was reminded that we might find ourselves “hobbling” along, most of the way, but perseverance counts. I pray the Lord will grant me the grace to keep hobbling forward to the finish line, even if I live to be 79!